Lenovo ChromeBook 500e Review: a Half of Firsts
While hardware reviews are the biggest thing on both the website here, and my YouTube Channel, Rounding Off infinity, I struggle to time manage getting around to them. Case in point. this review is about half of what I originally budgeted, and with several things left to test, I now realize I probably under-budgeted its size by about a third. So here's the plan. This is maybe half of the original content posted in one drop, and I'll probably be doing some additional microblog entries until I get down to a point where I am ok giving this thing a score. So..."This is a blues riff in 'B', watch me for the changes, and try and keep up, okay?""
I’m here starting up the draft of this review. In fact it is the early phases of testing. I’ve been using the Lenovo ChromeBook 500e as a low-power computing solution since its arrival. Meaning that it is the thing that I'll reach for when I need something with a physical keyboard but don’t want to light off one of the gaming behemoths and their associated 5 - 7 fans. In this mode I’ve been using the keyboard little, so this is the first real heavy work that I’ve used the keyboard for. Let me type a little more and cover some of the other topics I’ve outlined and then I’ll swing back and we can discuss how the keyboard and typing experience might hit you.
First off, it is VERY difficult to do a Chromebook (or ChromeBox, for that matter) review, and cleanly separate Chrome OS issues from the piece of kit under review itself. Platform and OS are tightly intertwined in Google’s low-power compute solution, so forgive me if I step over a wire in that area. As I will do here, if I may be so bold. One thing that may hit you the first time you sit down at a Chromebook is the fact that there is no way, as far as I know, to get around the need to manually type in your Google password to get logged into the machine. [NOTE: since I wrote this passage back in March, Google has introduced a PIN option for login, but it seems to only be permitted based on some timer from when you last entered your full password, so it is only what I would call 30% effective right now]While that may not be a big deal for some, my passwords are quite lengthy and complex. Because you cannot really use any automated means (such as LastPass) or other tricks you might use for logging in (I don’t actually use LastPass) to get passed that initial front door, you’ll be typing that thing in every time the ChromeBook so much as goes to sleep in its power management regime. Again, there is likely a deep setting to extend the sleep time and so forth, but I have not dug that deep in my ChromeBook use.
The last time I used a ChromeBook as part of my rotational kit, Android Apps on Chrome had not been implemented. Let me just say that using my arsenal of Android Apps on the 500e has simply been sublime. I have not installed a ton of them yet, but I have been using 7Digital, one of my music store apps, and having something other than just Google Play Music as a jukebox option has just been superb. I’ll be loading more apps on, so stay tuned for more on this topic later in the review.
On the digital ink front, and just using the 500e as a tablet, things look pretty good. Not perfect. As a tablet user of about 20 years, I have some particular tastes, so bear with me. First of all the flip; the act of transitioning the 500e from laptop to tablet mode, is a bit gangly. The 500e is not exactly svelte. While its materials feel great in the hand, and it as some stick to it from the slightly roughed top layer of the material, it is still a bit of a chore to get it flipped around. Especially if you have things sticking out of it, like a thumb drive and a wireless mouse receiving dongle. The 50ee is heavier than it is large, and maneuvering a device this small but this weighty around, where there is slightly limited space on which to get a good grip without tapping a key, can feel a bit precarious.
Whipping out the stylus gives you a whole new level of productivity. A stylus icon comes up in the SysTray area. Tapping on the stylus icon brings up a small menu where you can select to do a rectangular selection screen-grab, capture the entire screen, start a note (in Google Keep), bring up a virtual laser pointer (if you are doing a presentation and need to highlight something on your slide to call attention to it), or use your stylus tip as a magnifying glass (maybe this helps when trying to find something or someone in a photo (?); not sure. Overall, this stylus sub-menu is not an entirely bad implementation.
The Stylus is a bit laggy. That performance gets exacerbated if you thicken up the ink. It doesn’t impact the writing experience so much, but there is a janky after-effect; when your ink writes, but then the render of it may jump a split-second after you move on to the next word. I don’t know if it is the result of some kind of post-processing being applied to the render, or the result of the bits being shipped off to Google Keep in the Cloud and then coming back. These comments are specific to Google Keep, which is the default app that opens for ink-entry when you select the "take a note" option from the sub-menu. I still have testing to do in other Android Apps and Chrome WebApps.
There are also some specific use-cases where the lag is worse. In particular, if you make a markup in or over an area or blank space where you have already written, you’ll see some increased lag in rendering after you have already past that point in time. Also, once you have filled up a Keep note to about 50%, you will start seeing some increased lag every 4th or 5th letter. Again, none of this really impacted my writing experience directly. I did not feel overly compelled to slow down and wait for the 500e to catch up. It just made me hyper-aware that I was on a Chromebook and not a Surface device. Or hell, even a Samsung Android device like my Note8. Of course, I only paid just north of $300 for the 500e, and the cheapest Surface device rounds out at just about 3 times that. It easily hits 3 times that and goes over if you also buy the minimum accessories to achieve an equal amount of productivity as you get in the the 500e at it's just north of $300 price point. And my Galaxy Note8 is as expensive or more than many entry level Surface devices. I would characterize the inking performance on the 500e as just above the minimum threshold of acceptability. It's not great. But it's fine. It’s not perfect, but it’s not embarrassing given the entry price. And coming with an integrated keyboard as opposed to making that an add-on accessory makes the 500e a significant value for those who will take advantage of the inking capability. It is sufficient for taking notes in a classroom. I still want to check out some of the native Android apps that support digital ink before I render my final verdict, as I believe that they will perform better than Google Keep.
On the front-facing pieces of the operating system, ChromeOS suffers through some implementations that are great for engineers, wrong for 90% of the rest of the planet. Most glaring of these is the inability to automatically sort all of the apps in my app drawer to alphabetic order. Once you have added them all to the dock, they are yours to manage. Manually.
USB connectivity and accommodations went very well under test. I connected my 3-port + Ethernet hub to the Chromebook 500e through a USB A-to-C adapter, turned off the wireless antenna and had seamless connectivity. I tried connecting an external Blu-Ray drive, just to see if the Googlers has slipped in some disc-based support on the sly. The ChromeBook was able to see the file directories and files, but could not play any of them back natively. I also connected my Samsung Galaxy Note8 over the hub, and the Chromebook was able to read and surf the directory structure, and when I drilled down to the Music folder on the microSD card storage expansion, the ChromeBook was able to play the files back using it’s organic Audio Player. This last bit is a nice addition, as a couple of years back, the only music player that came with a ChromeBook stock install was Play Music, and that could only play your files from the Cloud, not anything that you had stored locally. You could download a couple of music players, but they did not all work well as today’s native Android apps. The ChromeOS Music Player is still a bit of an abomination as it cannot multiplay or shuffle tracks across sub-folders, which kind of makes it useless for me. But thank goodness for Android apps, as I have successfully tested Black Player, PowerPlayer, Pi Player, and Equalizer and had my entire music collection, which I store on a 128GB microSD card on the 500e, at my fingertips.
One major word of warning; the Lenovo ChromeBook 500e does not have any port to send its video over / out to an external display. So you will not be hooking this up to your nice 27” 1080p curved screen display. I do need to test to see if this will work with my USB to VGA display adapters. But otherwise you’ll be on one screen, or you can ChromeCast to an off-axis display. I am pretty sure that if I tweeted this out, this is the answer I would get back. If I did not know understand that limitation when I ordered it, I would have definitely been pissed. Still, it’s not an entirely bad solution. I’ve been saying for a few years now that I should include a Chromecast in many of my travels and outings. If the 500e pulls this off successfully (Casting tis full desktop to a Chromecast), it might just jump a full-point in my running, undisclosed, review score, but it’s also an amazing force-multiplier if you are on the go and don’t have access to more compute resources for external display of its desktop.
OK, that's it for now. Be on the lookout for more. The well goes deep on this one. In the meantime, I'll call attention back to my original out-of-the-box episode, offering thoughts on the 500e before I started the actual review cycle.